Christiania: There Are No Photos Allowed, So There Are None Here

The Swooping Angel

I find it by following the crowd, by keeping to an imprecise line on my map, and then suddenly I am standing in the midst of it, under a bright-painted mural, beside an enormous sculpture of a seashell covered in a mosaic of mirror shards. Like I have popped through the rabbit hole into a patch of ground covered in art, twigs, piles of firewood, hand-painted signs, and pale brown dirt.

I go to Christiania because I want to better understand how I feel about it. Because I cannot feel any particular way about it just by reading about it. I follow this same process for entire nations, so this tiny patch of land, in this tiny city, on the edge of this tiny nation, is no different. The only real difference is that a lot of people have a lot to say about Christiania, this ragtag squatter community in the center of Copenhagen.

Wikipedia details its political struggles, its years of on-again, off-again legal status. My tourist map labels it as “eccentric.” My pot-smoking friends at home think it’s wonderful.

The morning is so cold that I can feel the air seeping through my gloves and under my scarf—cold to the very bone. The sun tries to nudge beyond the clouds and can’t. I have no idea what I’ll do there by myself. The drugs hold little appeal and the coffee shops serving tofu dogs only look fun if you’re with friends, if the goal of the day is to share and participate, not to watch and think and make up your mind about things.

I head up Pusher Street because that’s the only straight path, the discernable way in. The little stands sell drugs in the open, but it’s more hash than pot, laid on in neat, amber-colored bricks. Oil drum fires burn high at the intersections, throwing off heat genies against the outstretched palms of dirty-looking teenagers. Signs painted on walls warn tourists against snapping photos. A banner hung across a building proclaims, STOP GLOBALIZATION; OUR WORLD IS NOT FOR SALE in bold English.

Before I arrive, I imagine that the dealers will look like California hippies with dreds and sandals and woven ponchos—old guys held over from another era who grow their own tomatoes. They don’t. Instead, the stalls are manned by tough young guys in dark hooded sweatshirts, their fists stuffed into the front pockets, legs splayed in defiance like soldiers. The army camouflage draped over some of the stalls—a holdover from the last government crackdown—doesn’t do much to soften the image. Instead of peace-loving hippies, these guys look like what they almost certainly are: Drug dealers who could really hurt you if they needed to. I don’t linger long.

In one of the coffee shops at the top of the street, a dreadlocked girl plays a guitar and sings in English. Crowds gather around the tables. Beers are served.

I reach the end of the street and hang to the right, wondering if this is it—some tables selling drugs, a coffee shop, murals. But the dirt path narrows and twists, and the ruckus on Pusher Street dies away. This is still Christiania, but another Christiania. The stalls and coffee shops give way to little structures done up with knick knacks—a pretty tile, a statue of a gnome, a pot of early-blossoming crocus. Neat piles of firewood sit waiting next to doors. Bikes lean against trees, unlocked. Some of the houses look like tidy little bungalows with arty affects like diamond-shaped windows and brightly-tiled walkways. Others look like heaps of kindling—the only evidence to the country, the only sign of life, being a single flapping curtain, or a feeble chimney poking through.

Away from Pusher Street, you can sense the brackish water all around, but it’s just beyond view, over the embankment. The only noise is the crunch of my boots on the pebbly ground. I pass a wooden fence with a half dozen ponies penned in behind it. They much grass, toss their heads, and eye me sideways when I stop to watch them. On the way back, a young family will pause before the fence, and a malt-colored pony with a spotted nose will wag its head in their direction. A tiny girl will squeal in delight, raise a hand to pat its muzzle.

On the way out, I walk on the elevated path above the streets. Everything smells like pot and wood smoke. I pass purple houses, back yards filled with unfinished projects. A dog trots up and barks at my ankles until I pass his property. The neighborhood below seems tiny and tangled. This is what absolute freedom looks like, how it shivers behind a wall, barely protected from the freezing sea beyond—and tax free. This is humanity left to be what it wants, the art of the collective.

To leave, I pass under a sign that says, “You Are Now Entering the EU.” I enter the EU. I take every inch of myself with me.

Go there: Christiania, Copenhagen’s squatter community, is located in the Christianshavn neighborhood. Walk behind the church with the twisting spiral, and you’re there. The photo, above, is from the interior of that church.

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One Response to “Christiania: There Are No Photos Allowed, So There Are None Here”

  1. Alexandra Says:

    Love this!

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